'Feared by the Aussies, our girls have the quality to make an impact in World Cup', says goalkeeper Savita Punia
Champions neither rest on their laurels nor gloat endlessly over past achievements irrespective of their magnitude or significance. Dwelling at length on the root causes of recent failures and shortcomings, however, is a lot more beneficial and serves to pave a winning path forward.
The Golden Girls do have a lot to boast about over the last eight months or so. A gold medal at the Asia Cup, a victory over Olympic Champions England at Gold Coast, followed by comprehensive victories over China and Japan at the Asian Champions Trophy have ensured that the Indian team have earned the reputation of becoming giant-killers on the world stage.
Yet, the predominant topic of discussion is centred more around the narrow loss to Australia in the Commonwealth Games semifinal, the loss to England in the bronze-medal match of the same tournament and the loss to Korea in the final at Donghae.
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, the seniormost Indian custodian and veteran of many battles, Savita Punia sheds light on what transpired at Gold Coast and Donghae, and what amends the Indian girls need to make ahead of the World Cup which begins a month from now.
India had qualified for the 2016 Olympics after a gap of 36 years. The team failed to make an impact in the tournament itself, but a lot has changed since then. The girls now know what it feels like to compete in a huge global event, says Savita, and will not be mere participants like they were at Rio, but display their mettle and make an impact in the London World Cup.
Sportskeeda: The girls have been part of three major tournaments recently. As a senior player and goalkeeper, how would you assess India's performances in the Asia Cup, CWG, and Asian Champions Trophy?
Savita: India booked their place in the World Cup by winning the Asia Cup after a gap of 13 years. (India had previously won the Asia Cup at home in 2004 and thus had qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Madrid).
So, the Asia Cup was special, no doubt. Our confidence grew since we knew that Korea, China, and Japan were not easy teams to beat and doing so was special for us. We did realize, however, that Asian supremacy was not the ultimate aim and that we had to compete at the world level.
In the Commonwealth Games, we performed quite well. We are pleased with our performance except for the semifinal match against Australia. We should not have lost that match at any cost.
In the Asian Champions Trophy, we did well but should have won gold. In both matches against Korea, we failed to play to our potential. The reason we lost is that we were unable to play the kind of hockey we usually do, and not because the Koreans outplayed us. If we had managed to play the finals with even 50% of the quality that we displayed against China and Japan, we would have beaten South Korea and won the tournament.
The pressure of must-win encounters affects individual performance
Sportskeeda: India were extremely fast and aggressive in all the group matches, but were unable to play an attacking game against Korea. Was it because of tight marking by the Koreans?
Savita: Since we treated the final as a must-win encounter, the pressure built up and it affected the individual performance of the players. As a goalkeeper, that was my assessment of the game.
We were unable to earn PCs and could not manage many shots on goal as well. It becomes a serious issue when we do not understand where we went wrong but in this case, the players realized their shortcomings after the match.
Sportskeeda: How do you think India matches up with the best teams in the world now?
Savita: There used to be a time in the past when we used to be daunted by the sheer names of teams like Holland and Australia. We used to doubt our ability to face these world-class outfits. Now, we have the confidence to take on any side in the world.
Yes, we did lose to Australia, but the match was not a one-sided affair like it was in the Rio Olympics where we lost 1-6. The players get demoralized when the team loses by big margins. In the Commonwealth Games, the confidence of the players grew with every match.
Sportskeeda: Reports in the Australian media during the Commonwealth Games stressed on the fact that the quality of the Indian team is far superior to what their tenth ranking seems to suggest. What are your thoughts?
Savita: The Australian coaching staff are well aware of how powerful a team India is. The Aussies wanted to avoid playing us in the semifinal. They knew quite well that India is one of the most skilful teams in the world. In addition, over the last year or so, the girls have focussed a lot on fitness and strength training which make us a formidable unit. Wayne Lombard (Scientific Advisor) has helped us a lot in this regard.
Apart from drag-flick options, we also have players who are adept at scoring off deflections and our opponents know that these are the strengths of the Indian team.
Having said all this, however, it would have been nice if we had beaten Australia (laughs).
Sportskeeda: In the bronze-medal match against England, the contest was quite even for the first 44 minutes even though India were trailing 0-1. What went wrong all of a sudden for the team to concede 5 quick goals and lose 0-6?
Savita: Quarterfinals and bronze-medal matches are always very tricky. These matches are sometimes tougher than semifinals and finals too, as losing these matches is equivalent to giving up on a medal.
In the bronze-medal match against England, things were going quite well while we were down just a single goal. As soon as England scored their second goal (a minute before the final quarter) panic set in as there was not much time left on the clock. The entire structure of the team then collapsed.
Sportskeeda: You looked visibly upset as you came off the pitch after a change of goalkeeper in the last quarter of the match. What was going through your mind then?
Savita: I was angry and upset as we had lost a medal and not because I was replaced (by Rajani Etimarpu). I have been a second goalkeeper in the past as well and we all work very hard. I was definitely not happy with the third goal that I conceded as it was an easy goal and the emotions were not easy to hide. If I had not conceded that goal, maybe we could still have fought our way back.
Our first aim is to reach the WC quarterfinal and take it from there
Sportskeeda: The expectations from the girls are now higher than ever before. What are you aiming for at the World Cup? We have England, the USA, and Ireland in our group. Can we beat all of them?
Savita: I do not want to start by saying that we will definitely finish on the podium although we definitely want to. We do know, however, that the same is not beyond us. We will take it match by match and aim to reach the quarterfinal and progress from there. Reaching the quarterfinal is the aim for now.
It is good that we have England in the pool as we are confident that we can challenge them. We lost the bronze-medal match as we did not play to our potential. At the Olympics, we were just participants but failed to make an impact. It will not be the same at the World Cup although most of the teams are the same.
We were a bit overwhelmed by the occasion (in Rio 2016) as it was a huge stage for us, playing our first Olympics. We will not make the same mistakes in the World Cup.
We lost to Ireland by a 1-2 margin last year (in the HWL semifinal at Johannesburg) as they managed to score two late goals off PCs in the last quarter. Against the USA, we have always had close matches. The encounters have never been one-sided.
We like to focus on ourselves and our game, and not on the opposition. We are playing attacking hockey and have a very strong defence.
I have told you before (on the eve of the Commonwealth Games) and I will repeat once more, that we can challenge any side in the world.